(Reuters Health) – Protecting young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” from deportation may also help lower the risk of mental health problems for their U.S.-born children, a recent study suggests.
The Trump administration this week announced plans to revoke the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed about 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the country.
For the study, researchers examined data on 5,653 mothers in Oregon born just before and after the cutoff for DACA eligibility. To qualify they had to have entered the U.S. before they turned 16, no earlier than June 15, 1981.
When mothers qualified for DACA, 3.3 percent of their children had a range of mental illnesses that can be provoked by stress such as intense feelings of sadness or hopelessness, anxiety and depression.
But when mothers weren’t eligible for DACA, 7.8 percent of their kids had these mental illnesses.
“Mental illness in early childhood can have serious downstream effects,” said lead study author Jens Hainmueller, co-director of the Immigration Policy Lab at Stanford University in California.
“It can impair school performance and cause health issues such as substance abuse, obesity or cardiovascular diseases,” Hainmueller said by email. “So the costs for individuals, as well as society at large, are likely to be vast.”
About 4 million children born in the U.S. have at least one parent who is an unauthorized immigrant, researchers note in the journal Science.
To assess how fear of a parent’s deportation might influence mental health, researchers examined data on 8,610 children born to undocumented mothers in Oregon between 2003 and 2015.
The mothers had pregnancy coverage through Oregon’s Emergency Medicaid program, which pays for care provided to immigrant women who do not qualify for traditional Medicaid. The children, as U.S. citizens, were then covered by Medicaid, so researchers could see whether health records revealed a mental illness.
Researchers focused on mental health disorders that might develop in children afraid of being separated from their parents by deportation. This included what’s known as adjustment disorder, which is often triggered by a stressful life event and can result in poor performance in school or work, behavior problems, sleep difficulties, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
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